Photo By Hillary Ehlen
Many see one thing when they look at NDSU baseball’s 2019 roster on paper.
Tod Brown’s squad has just four seniors accompanied by 13 juniors, 14 freshmen or redshirt freshmen and five sophomores. That is a youthful team, to the point that it may worry some coaching staffs.
Yet, many of the sophomores and juniors on the roster got extensive time on the diamond in 2018. Because of that, Bison baseball may not be as young as the casual observer believes.
Couple that experience with the experience of the team’s four seniors and you have a solid day-to-day unit. Outfielders Jayse McLean and Alec Abercrombie are two of those four seniors. They believe that taking on a leadership role is necessary, but they are not worried about young guys needing to be led.
“The biggest thing to do is to share your experience. After four or five years in my case, you have the ups and downs whether it’s injury or struggling to adapt to Division I baseball. The biggest thing is to make the new guys and the young guys feel comfortable,” said McLean, a senior from Great Falls, Montana. “When you’re young, the hardest thing is understanding that you’re here for a reason and you have the capability to be here, otherwise we wouldn’t have recruited you. Instilling that confidence and that comfortability of playing at a high level and meeting expectations. That’s tough as a first timer and just trying to share my experiences is the biggest thing.”
McLean has been with the program for five seasons, taking a medical redshirt in 2017. Abercrombie, a Shoreview, Minnesota, native is less worried about players needing leadership from their seniors. “We do have a heavy sophomore and junior class with only four seniors. Making those guys feel comfortable and maybe putting them in a leadership role and telling them that this is their team too,” he said. “A lot of the juniors understand that I mean, we have talented guys across the board with every class. I’d say it’s not something I’m worried about, there is a lot of leadership and a lot of talent at those levels and they’re going to help us win.”
North Dakota State is always at a minor disadvantage each season because they do not play outside until their first game of the year. Because of that, it can be really easy for a team to begin a season cold from the plate. The lack of live at-bats in preseason training could prove detrimental. However, McLean and Abercrombie are quick to point out that just because they practice inside, they still get useful at-bats indoors and throughout the offseason.
“We have the bubble now, so we get live at-bats. Most guys, before we play our first game, we get 30 plus at-bats against our pitching. It’s a little different coming out of the bubble, but for a lot of it, that’s a pretty good representation of what you’re going to see. The only real difference is that it matters and it’s wins and losses that go on our record. I think our facility certainly help us prepare better than what we used to do,” McLean said. “On top of that, we all play summer ball. Each one of us gets 100, 200 at-bats in the summer, same with fall ball where we get 50 at-bats. That’s used to try and lessen that learning curve, lessen that adjustment so it doesn’t take two weeks or three weeks for guys to get comfortable and start hitting. It’s certainly a challenge, but I think we do the best with the opportunities we have, playing in Fargo, North Dakota, where is 50 below outside.”
McLean was impressive at the plate last season. He hit for a .250 average, had seven home runs and 31 RBIs. That performance garnered him All-Summit League recognition. Before the season, he was named a player to watch for NDSU, who was picked third in the preseason poll. For Abercrombie, he believes coming out of the Dacotah Field bubble is challenging, but guys just want to get outside more than anything. “Coming out of the bubble is a challenge. We get a lot of at-bats, but I think there is also that excitement just to get outside,” he said. “That kind of takes away any nerves, when you have as many at-bats as Jayse said, even though we might be coming off only 30-40 at-bats right now, we have a couple hundred to pick up from last year. I’d say everybody is just so excited to get outside that it’s not really something they’re worried about.”
Getting outside for Bison baseball requires them to travel all across the United States. The team will not play its first home game at Newman Outdoor Field until April 5. In the interim, the Bison will travel to California, Texas, Colorado, Mississippi and Nebraska before hitting their conference slate in late March. That travel can prove difficult for student-athletes, especially with their academics. McLean and Abercrombie have found a nice balance though.
“With the travel and the school, it all comes as one big thing. You’re waking up early, playing baseball three days a week at the highest level possible and you’re getting on a plane. That mixed in with schoolwork is a challenge, but you have your teammates,” Abercrombie said. “There’s 30, 40 guys around you that are going through the same thing. Everybody that gets on the bus is facing the same challenges, so it helps to have those guys around you to support you, help you and everyone has the same thing in mind and that’s winning.”
Relying on teammates is another strategy McLean ascribes to when it comes to prioritizing academics. “You still have time. There are 24 hours in a day and granted, we’re on the field for six or seven hours which takes a big chunk of the day. In the hotel rooms, buses, airports, you have time to do your work if you need to. The hard part is getting yourself to do it,” McLean said. He was named to the All-Summit League Academic Team and was a Google Cloud Academic All-American last season. “With 30 or 40 guys, there’s a lot of distractions and a lot of things you’d rather be doing and so a lot of that is just holding yourself accountable, holding yourself to a standard that the coaches expect, your teammates expect. It’s certainly a challenge, but I think that we all want to play so bad and school is part of it. You have to perform in school and if don’t, you don’t play. So, you have to make the choice, if you want to play Division I baseball, you’re going to have to get used to it.”
Having played most of their career together, both McLean and Abercrombie are pretty cohesive in the outfield. Both had at least a .950 fielding percentage last season. With communication and chemistry being vital for outfielders, McLean and Abercrombie have it mastered. “One thing you get used to is the range of your teammate and stuff like that. For example, I know how far Alec can go and I know what balls you can get to. You get used to that, it sounds simple and stupid, but you get used to how guys call ball and when they call it,” McLean said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a huge learning curve but it’s important because you’re running around, there’s walls, other people, but we’re usually pretty good about communication. We don’t get a lot of reps in the bubble because it’s only so high, but we’ve been playing together for a few years so it comes pretty natural after a point.”
Abercrombie agrees with McLean. “Knowing one another’s range out there is huge. The way you call it too, after playing together for so long, it’s like second nature.”
With a young team or any baseball team, there will be stumbling blocks. McLean and Abercrombie know that the game ebbs and flows each day. When asked how they succeed as individuals and as a team this season, they both use similar terms: Focus, effort and preparation. Both do agree that mindset is a large part of succeeding on the diamond.
“Bringing that effort to the field every day is going to go a long way for us because we have a young team. Throughout the season, guys might go down, guys might slow down on the bat, we need somebody to step up,” Abercrombie said. “Like last year we had Carter [Thompson] step up, really helped us out and we still didn’t win the championship. We need more guys to step up with that effort. We’re looking forward to that, we have four seniors, we got a few juniors that have experience and we’re looking for that next guy or two to really step up and make a difference on the team.”
McLean looks at a little differently. For him, guys need to have confidence in themselves, especially if they do hit a slump from the plate or in the win-loss column.
“A lot of that is being focused and coming in day in and day out prepared. There’s going to be bad days, but the biggest thing you can do as a baseball player is limit that. You might for 0-10 on a weekend, that’s going to happen, but don’t turn it into 0-25 because you’re pouting and feeling bad about yourself,” he said. “There’s going to be some lumps with some young guys learning some stuff. There’s going to be hiccups, there is every year and that happens with pretty much every team, it’s just how baseball is. The goal of baseball is to limit those and maybe scratch out some gritty wins by playing hard and doing the little things right. The biggest thing for sure is showing up with energy and focus and don’t use anything as an excuse to not be the best every day.”
In the general sense, Bison baseball is “young” in 2019. However, they have the experience at the necessary positions to be challenging for a Summit League title this season. One thing Tod Brown does not need to worry about is his outfield with two stellar senior leaders in Jayse McLean and Alec Abercrombie.